by Richard Hinojosa · February 17, 2015
Many teachers will tell you that they have learned more from their students than they ever did in school. Indeed, our growth is directly connected to our practice. Sometimes we have to step into and through the fire in order to achieve growth. All three characters in Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out Of Paper must step through the fire, even if it means destroying what they have worked so hard to build.
Set in the world of origami, the play is a metaphor for the scars life can leave on us. The characters’ lives slowly unfold to reveal each crease that folding paper leaves, each fold a memory – each fold an experience, until we see how the folds made them into who they are today.
The story opens on Ilana’s cluttered apartment. She is an origami master who has not been able to make a fold in months. Crumpled paper is strew everywhere along with the many paper sculptures of her past. Enter Andy, a schoolteacher who is an origami enthusiast and treasurer of a local origami society, who asserts that his visit is to drop off a newsletter and claim membership dues but he has other motives. One is to convince Ilana to take Suresh, one of his most brilliant students, as an apprentice. Ilana quickly learns that Suresh needs little instruction from her in the ways of origami however, they find that they have a lot to learn from each other in the ways of life, love and fulfillment.
Ilana and Suresh’s relationship is one of mutual beneficial dichotomy – Ilana’s apartment is messy and disorganized and Suresh feels compelled to clean and bring order to it yet he feeds on the chaos of spontaneity and free-flow rapping. Ilana carefully calculates her sculptures, fold by fold, where Suresh sees the object and folds it with little assessment. He folds from the heart where she now folds from the mind - though she didn’t always do so. There was a time when her heart was in it but these days she can only look back at what she has lost (much of it commemorated in sculpture on her shelves). Still, Ilana has accepted who she is where young Suresh puts up the façade of a tough urban kid. Ilana and Andy’s budding relationship is interesting but does not drive the plot nearly as effectively as her connection to Suresh.
Joseph’s allegory of life through the folding of paper is simple and beautiful. Much like origami, his plot starts with one dimension and slowly expands into three dimensions. I loved the other running analogies such as that of the heart. Joseph inserts heart in so many clever ways, the aforementioned working from the heart as well as the fact that Ilana is literally working on a heart sculpture that is meant to help in a surgical procedure. In addition, the way Andy wears his heart on his sleeve while Ilana’s is very well secured. It even takes place on Valentine’s Day at one point. (I saw it Valentine’s Day!) It’s a brilliantly written play and I can see why Yolo! Productions chose it for revival.
Director Merri Milwe stages the play skillfully in the rec room of West Park Church. The drab and drafty space was a fitting place for the story. The creaky floorboards and overhead lighting from old chandeliers really set the scene for me. There stage is filled with some extraordinary origami sculptures courtesy of Sok Song and Lorne Dannenbaum (and a long list of other artists). The giant hawk, the human heart and hissing cockroach were among the most remarkable.
One of the strongest elements of this production is its stellar cast. Led by Nairoby Otero as Ilana, the ensemble is very impressive with their individual interpretations of their characters. Otero is dead on with her balance of unsympathetic frankness and compassionate support. She is fiercely independent yet desperate for affection at the same time. David Beck as Andy works for every ounce of sympathy and endearment. He is very grounding throughout the play. Maneesh Sasikumar as Suresh plays up the sensitive yet defensive urban kid with subtlety and a lot of finer points. His monologue in the second act turned everything around for me and opened up the emotional impact going into the end.
Between the young cast, the musty old space and the simplistic lighting and sound this production feels very raw. Yet somehow all that also seems appropriate considering the well-played, raw emotions on display. This is independent theatre. When you have a cast of talented actors and a smart script, all you really need is an audience. I recommend that you provide that element to this production. It’s well worth it.